'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Arm the Spirit, a Woman's Journey Underground and Back (Part 1) 

In the post-9/11 world, people like Diana Block have been forgotten. Recollections of the social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that exploded into violent domestic conflict have been suppressed, infrequently rising to the surface as farce, most recently with the belated celebrity of Bill Ayers. Through the publication of her memoir by AK Press, Block provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the strengths and shortcomings of radicals such as herself as they sought to transform the American political system.

Block was, and remains, first and foremost, an anti-imperialist in the broadest sense of the term. Just as the German director Fassbinder recognized the inward and outward manifestations of coercion and control, emphasizing the fascism of everyday life in many of his films, Block attempted to integrate the personally liberatory dimension of feminism and gay rights while drifting towards the confrontational leftism of the Weather Underground, and its successor, the above ground Prairie Fire. Her initial forays into activism in San Francisco in the early 1970s centered around confronting violence against woman within the larger context of the brutality of the American state. As the title of the book indicates, she later went underground in the late 1970s, aligning herself with the violent attempts to bring about an independent Puerto Rico, but I will examine that aspect of the book in a subsequent blog entry.

During this period, Block was sorting out her sexual identity while simultaneously trying to create viable Marxist-Leninist organziations capable of absorbing the energy of civil rights and national liberation movements. One the one hand, she strongly identified with a feminist program that included gays and lesbians, with an emphasis upon a communal social life as a substitute for the family. On the other, she was, like many others on the left, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, and, thus, accepted the practice of democratic centralism, described by Lenin as freedom of discussion, unity in action, as a means of creating a revolutionary vanguard.

Block candidly describes her entangled relationships, romantic and political, as she embraced her bisexuality within a turbulent life of contentious activism, a life where the most minor doctrinal disagreements could mean the end of a friendship, the need to find a new place to live and the collapse of yet another promising group. Her narrative is engrossing as she relates the interwoven personal and political events in her life in an straightforward, intimate voice. She is rarely arrogant, placing successes and failures within a collective and contingent context.

Block, and others like her, were unable to maintain a bridge between the burgeoning feminist and gay rights movements and the radical left. Many of her leftist allies, still influenced by the primacy that Marxism placed upon the working class, could not avoid the reflexive subordination of feminist and gay issues in their outreach to workers. They even diminished the emphasis upon liberation movements in the Third World, pushing Block into nearly complete isolation.

As a result, feminists, gays and lesbians, to the extent that they were ever economically radicalized, focused upon gaining acceptance within an increasingly open minded middle class, becoming indifferent to the revolutionary appeals of people like Block. This was most painfully brought home to Block and her friends when their leafletting during the 1978 Gay Pride Parade, leafletting for the purpose of connecting the gay rights movement with revolutionary change worldwide, was met with indifference.

Block describes all this with honesty and critical insight, and yet, she shrinks from directly confronting the limitations of Marxism itself, specifically, the constraints of the process of democratic centralism in attempting to fashion a revolutionary movement open to marginalized people like those she most strongly identifies with, women, lesbians and people of color, especially those outside the US seeking to free themselves from Eurocentric imperial dominance. Perhaps, one can say that it is implicit in her narrative, but that is a stretch.

Block's personal reflections strongly support the notion that the Marxist concept of a vanguard party, governed by the process of democratic centralism, was inherently biased in relation to gender, race and sexual orientation because the participants disproportionately retained the biases of the society that they were seeking to transform. She leaves us with the impression that she and her follow revolutionaries were inadequate to the task, rather than critique the process itself, and the hierarchical ideology ingrained within it. She never fully grasps the fact that, despite trying over and over again, the embrace of Marxist organizational principles perpetually generated the disappointing outcomes.

But there is a reason for this. Like her European comrades, Block was, as already noted, initially inspired by the Cuban Revolution. Unlike her European comrades, she, and many other American leftists, were incapable of recognizing that the permanent adoption of a hierarchical Marxist-Leninist social model was a dead end. In Street Fighting Years, his account of his early political life in Britain in the 1960s, Tariq Ali describes the New Left deification of Castro and its subsequent relationship with the Cuban embassy in London. However, the relationship ended abruptly when Castro, after an agonizing delay, gave a speech in support of the Russian invasion of Czechoslavakia in 1968. In Europe, unlike the US, leftists associated the May '68 uprising in France with the Prague Spring and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, considering these turbulent events as a reflection of global generational discontent.

Cuba and Castro were too close to home for American leftists like Block. Indeed, one reads her memoir in vain for any indication that she was influenced by the autonomous Marxist and anarchistic aspects of leftist activity in Europe and the express repudiation of the Soviet Union associated with them. Guerin, Cohn-Bendit, Lefebvre, the Italian workerists, they, and many others like them, were all apparently unknown to her, or if known, not considered particularly important. Block mentions the USSR infrequently, and when she does, it is usually in relation to the dependency of Cuba and Third World liberation movements for economic assistance. Some European leftists, unlike many American ones, still held a belief that there was a revolutionary alternative independent of both the US and the USSR.

Hence, Block and her associates were cut off from a different radical discourse that might have been more effective than the fusion of Marxist-Leninism with Third World liberation movements that grew stale with the passage of time. Of course, the rejoinder is that the Europeans failed, too, but Europe remains more left leaning than the US to this day. Certainly, leftist agitation in countries like France, Germany and Italy has been more influential than such agitation in the US, which is now virtually moribund. And, furthermore, leftist movements in South America have put this aspect of the European experience to good use. Within the context of US radical history, I also have no recollection of any mention of the IWW, even though that movement is probably closest to what Block was trying to accomplish across the boundaries of race, sex and class.

Significantly, one also reads Block's account in vain for any recognition of the ideological implications of consumerism. There are some oft-hand expressions of dismay about the inability to politically reach Americans increasingly absorbed in it, especially after she went underground, and found herself compelled to maintain her anonymity by living like most lower middle income and middle income Americans, but that's about it. She does not engage efforts to socially understand it, such as Baudrillard's shocking assertion that people in the developed world now define themselves in relation to consumption instead of their role in the production process. Nor does the related concept of the spectacle, as expressed by Debord and amplified by others, make an appearance, which is consistent with her seemingly disengagement from the European left. She therefore failed to perceive the perils in the colonization of public and private life entailed by it.

To some extent, this is unfair, and I admit to being a bit harsh, and yet, one of Block's central motivations for writing the book (it certainly wasn't commercial) was to promote introspection among leftists about the past, present and future. If such introspection is going to bear fruit, it must go beyond the admittedly powerful self-examination and candor exhibited by Block, because, as insightful as it is, as inspirational as it is, it is shackled by a Marxist-Leninist worldview that is inadequate to the task before us.

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